Image: Concert at Massey Hall, January 12, 2014: David Suzuki, Andrew Weaver, Neil Young, Chief Allan Adam, Eriel Deranger, Vanessa Gray
This past weekend in Toronto, Neil Young ignited a firestorm of national attention, debate, celebration, and anger at the “Honour the Treaties” concert to raise funds for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations (ACFN) legal defense fund in opposition to large-scale tar sands extraction in Alberta. “Canada is trading integrity for money. We made a deal with these people. We are breaking our promise. We are killing these people. The blood of these people will be on modern Canada’s hands.
Neil Young’s solidarity with First Nations and taking a stand against the tar sands seems to have ruffled the feathers of the usually nonplussed prime minister, and his office responded immediately with equivocation about economics, thousands of job opportunities and improving quality of life for First Nations. Young was quick to rebuke point by point the PMO’s arguments with moral ethical challenges regarding the environmental costs and the breaking of treaties.
Since the Idle No More Movement (INM) peeked a year ago First Nations have continued to assert their Aboriginal and treaty rights through continued opposition to large-scale development projects such as the Keystone Pipeline, shale gas exploration at Elsipogtog, and through the ongoing demand of the government of Canada to implement its duty to consult First Nations when contemplating actions that may adversely impact Aboriginal or treaty rights. While the movement appears on the surface to have lost some of its steam, perhaps it takes a Canadian icon to bring these issues back into the national spotlight. Ironically it was not the National Chief, but Neil Young who got the PMO to respond to these issues.
Idle No More Toronto was in full force outside Massey Hall on Sunday night celebrating the concert, reminding concert patrons standing in line to think beyond the music at an individual level, and to join in a round dance of solidarity around shared environmental and social issues so much larger than a Neil Young concert. Before the concert, Toronto based Indigenous grassroots activists gifted Young with an eagle feather, honouring the over 600 missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada.
At the press conference Young pointed out that Canadian place names such as: Saskatchewan, Winnipeg, Quebec, and Canada itself, are in fact Indigenous names and that Canadians should recognize Indigenous history and the rights that come with it.
Indigenous based science has been observing all kinds of environmental effects related to tar sands, leading to multiple joint review panel hearings that measure impacts such as loss of traditional territory for the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations (ACFN) at 80%, and woodland caribou decreases of 70% since 1996, all of which decrease the quality of life and health for First Nations in the region. Eriel Deranger, spokesperson for ACFN says the loss of hunting, gathering and fishing grounds equates directly with the loss of culture when there are no hides to tan for drums, moccasins, and regalia, and no berries or medicines to gather.
Environment Canada scientists recently reported findings of a 7,300 sq mile ring of mercury around the tar sands region, along with highly toxic methylmercury in snow banks, which will melt and go directly into local water tables, streams, rivers, and be consumed by animals and humans alike.
The Canadian government rationalizes resource extraction with rhetoric about the economy and improving quality of life for First Nations. However, many First Nations contend that improved quality of life would be to have unobstructed access to clean water, traditional gathering and hunting grounds, and fresh air to breath. And, as Neil Young stated last Sunday in Toronto, “I want my grandchildren to grow up and look up and see a blue sky and have dreams that their grandchildren are going to do great things. I don’t see that today in Canada. I see a government completely out of control. Money is number one and integrity isn’t even on the map.”
* “The name Canada comes from the Iroquoian [Haudenosaunee] word kanata, meaning ‘village.’ In August 1535, Jacques Cartier heard two Aboriginal youths refer to the village of Stadacona as kanata. Cartier wrote the name down in his journal as Canada.” Language Portal of Canada